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Community Newsletter: Fresh takes on theory-of-mind skills, evaluating joint attention, autism’s sex ratio

by  /  26 June 2022
Speech bubble formed by a network of communication

Illustration by Laurène Boglio

A trill of tweets this week theorized about theory-of-mind skills during conversation. Those abilities do not predict the success of an interaction between autistic, non-autistic or mixed pairs of adolescents, according to a new study that sparked the discussion.

“Fascinating paper,” tweeted Noah Sasson, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas. Autistic participants broke more theory-of-mind-related norms, based on neurotypical exchanges, but didn’t differ from their non-autistic peers in terms of perspective-taking or using language about mental states — skills that Sasson notes are “how ToM is commonly defined.”

The findings run “contrary to our hypothesis,” tweeted Michelle Dawson, an autism researcher at Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies in Montreal, Canada, quoting the study’s conclusions.

Dawson also quoted a note that the work was underpowered to “test the effect of (or interactions with) dyad type” because the COVID-19 pandemic halted the researcher’s data collection.

Study investigator Diana Alkire, postdoctoral associate in the Developmental Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Maryland, provided further information on her own Twitter page, along with an offer to email the accepted manuscript version to anyone without access to the journal.

Joint attention in autism also got a second look in another set of tweets kicked off by Dan Kennedy, associate professor of psychology and brain science at Indiana University Bloomington. Kennedy summarized his recent work on the subject with a short spoiler: During toy play, “hands matter more than eye contact,” he wrote, quote tweeting a related dispatch and crediting his colleagues with “a beautiful writeup.”

“Face looking in everyday activity is equally rare in autistic and neurotypical children and not required in either group,” tweeted Damian Milton, senior lecturer in intellectual and developmental disabilities at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, in response, adding that the finding made him giggle.

Richard Woods, a graduate student at London South Bank University in the U.K., asked whether the finding raises questions about the Autism Diagnosis Observation Schedule.

Eye looking is still “diagnostically useful,” Kennedy replied, but perhaps less central to joint attention in some contexts.

Catherine Burrows, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, tweeted about her new work that points to measurement bias to explain why autism is diagnosed four times as often in boys as in girls. She and her colleagues tracked baby siblings of children with autism over the course of five years and assessed how common diagnostic tools captured the infant and toddler boy’s and girl’s traits differently. After adjusting for those differences, the sex ratio in their sample dropped to nearly 1-to-1.

“Crikey! This very interesting stuff,” tweeted Andrew Whitehouse, Angela Wright Bennett Professor of Autism Research at Telethon Kids Institute and the University of Western Australia in Perth, sharing a link to Spectrum’s coverage of the study.

“A great step forward for autistic girls/women/gender diverse folk,” applauded Josephine Barbaro, associate professor of psychology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, in a quote tweet.

That’s it for this week’s Community Newsletter! If you have any suggestions for interesting social posts you saw in the autism research sphere, feel free to send an email to [email protected].

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